Simran Shah discusses why practical experience is the best teacher

Matter + Form

Obsessed with all things beauty? Mumbai-based artist Simran Shah dives into why hard work and gritty determination are your best tools in to make it in the hair and make-up industry. Her advice can be summarized with: to start, get something you really enjoy working on and work your way up.

We caught up with her to discuss the process of trial and error:

How did you develop your work ethic?

My parents have always been self-reliant. Everything my dad has done, he's done all by himself. The same goes for my mom. They've always been role models for me, and I've always wanted to be able to do the same. To be independent and stand on my own two feet.

I was always doing so much, I barely had any time for myself when I was a teenager. Because I started young, I've already got eight years of work experience and I'm getting contracts for movies. It's easier now because of it. The hard work's already been done.

Is there a project you're really happy to have worked on?

I happened to meet Elton Fernandez, who is a make-up artist living in India. He wanted a team for Amazon Fashion Week. He had just accepted the position and he had a contract for three years. Every year, you have two seasons of fashion week and I did about three seasons. That was one of my most creative experiences. The thrill you get - working with Sabyasachi, Manish Malhotra and lots of other designers like them. When you're working backstage, you start to connect the dots of how the fashion industry really works and how trends migrate.

What does a day in your life look like?

It entirely depends on whether it's a commercial shoot or a wedding or something else.

Let's say it's a TVC. If the call time is 4 am, there is of course, no one to help me with anything or give me any food. So I'll maybe grab a banana and head out the door. Let's assume the artist needs to be ready by 11 am, that means you need to start working on them 2 hours before that. If the team is great, you might roll at 11 am, if not then it's 1 pm or later. Your work is done, but you need to hang around in case of emergencies or changes. And the waiting game can really get to you, because you'd rather be productive during that time. For ads, generally there are 8 hour and 12 hour shifts which you are contracted for, but it always goes beyond that.

I'm not the kind of person who would leave, so the hours do add up. But I think it's important to be there till the shoot wraps up. It's important because you want to be there to make sure that everything is as it should be, and it also helps you build relationships. It's not as if I'm the only one who wants to go home, everyone is working and everyone is exhausted.

There's a lot of creativity that goes into make-up. How would you describe your approach to it?

When I see a person for the first time, it's a true white canvas. How I want to design a look and what I want to do is subject to what the skin type is, what the colors or tones are, whether there is pigmentation, whether coverage is required. There are a lot of technical factors and skin work is the most important. But apart from that, I look at the person's features. I don't want to make them look like someone they're not. If my foundation, my skin work is good, the rest can be built up.

If I'm working with a bride, I'll always set-up a trial. I won't work on a bride without a trial, because I want her to know me. We would decide the look together once I know about the outfit and the jewelry. Through that 2 hour meeting, we can find out whether we connect and are on the same page. It's important for her as well, for her to know that I understand what she wants and won't make her look like a fool. I mean, if I was a bride and didn't have that confidence, I wouldn't hire that person whether the fees were six thousand or six lacs. I'd want to be sure of the person I'm working with.

My approach is not to change a face, but just enhance the natural beauty. All of us are gifted with something beautiful, like a great nose or structured cheekbones. If someone has great eyes, that's something I want to accentuate. I try to play with what's already there.

So less is more?

Less is more, of course. But sometimes people require a bit more. Whether that's bigger lashes or more cover up, subtle changes. I think it's easy to make someone look different, but it's hard to make someone look more like themselves. It takes understanding a lot of different things, it takes skill.

With models, especially. We expect models to be glamorous. But most models go through work, as well as make-up and hair, everyday. They are so tired and exhausted that they don't have time for skincare. They don't get time for prepping. Some have been using cheaper make-up, some have been using more high end stuff. Their skin is usually not very relaxed. Some have open pores, or tiny pores, or rough skin, or facial hair.

It's a myth that all models have beautiful skin. It all looks flawless on camera of course, because you can't compare your vision to a camera's. Plus, what you see on Instagram and on hoardings, those are processed images. Celebrities might be spending a lot more on their faces, but they have the same skin problems as everyone else.

Could you tell us what your interests were growing up?

As a child I was very dramatic, and I was called a drama queen in school. I pretty much always knew I belonged in a creative field. I was always a dancer. In fact, I was on Boogie Woogie when I was five years old.

I've been learning kathak for over a decade, and I learned bellydancing after that. I was thirteen and the youngest in Sucheta Pal's class, and eventually I became a trainer. It was the same with zumba, I trained for six months and I was teaching it for over three years. But I didn't want to pursue a career as a dancer, I knew my passion - if not god-given talent - was make-up.

I was fascinated with Vogue magazine at some point, I don't know why. But I said to my parents: I see myself here one day. I want to be in the office. I’m going to be in this magazine.

In the world of it?

Exactly. So I signed up for a crash course in photography in the 10th grade. Then the next two years, when everyone else went to summer school I went to make-up school. I did a professional course in hair and make-up from the London College of Fashion. And when I got back, I went through magazines and started connecting with people through email. Instagram wasn't as big as a platform then, and anyway its more professional to send in your work.

What was it like to study make-up?

The way you are taught abroad, they are more welcoming to any and everybody so they give you a more hands-on experience of light skin, middle skin, dark skin, every type of skin. They give you an understanding of all skin types and all colors. Everybody is welcome to learn, understand and experiment.

How was your course in London different from the one you did in Mumbai?

When I studied in Bombay, I found the courses are a bit of a racket, where they only care about making money through fees. I was first in my class, and my reward was an internship. The cost is exorbitant. I paid almost 2 lacs, but I didn't actually learn anything from that course.

I didn't get to work on fashion shows, I didn't get to work with someone from the industry, I wasn't sent anywhere to represent the academy, nothing. I couldn't add anything to my portfolio, I didn't get any real experience. All you really want is something that you can put in your portfolio, something that you can show potential clients and build on.  You'd expect, at least, professional pictures of the make-up that can be utilized, something that makes the course worth it.

But when I studied in London, we got to work backstage at London Fashion Week. We had five shows to work on, and we did all the models make-up.  It's a much better platform to learn.

That's an investment when you're just starting out.

It's a lot, especially if you aren't even sure you're going to make it in the industry. You don't know yet whether you're good at what you do, or whether you'll get work, and you're not yet sure that this is your calling. It just seems like a waste of money. People will message me on Instagram saying, "Hey, I want to be a make-up artist," I always reply with, "Why?"

I want to know what drives them, because this life only looks glamorous on the outside. People think I'm always travelling and they don't know where to find me on the globe. But on set, you are your own coolie, your own cleaner, your own assistant, your own everything. There are days when my bags weight 70 kgs and I have to carry all of it. I have days where I come back home hungry, tired, sleepy, cranky, I've got mosquito bites and I've had to leave home before the sun was out. You often don't know the kind of places you're going to. Some people have families who don't allow them to stay out late or work odd hours, which you'll need to do.  You need to be up for anything.

Some people want to know the kind of projects I am doing, or how much money can you make, whether it's benefited me or not, they want factual things like that. And it takes time. If you’re good and you get picked up by a celebrity or somebody who’s interested in your specific skills, you'll be alright. But apart from that, it's still quite a struggle, it's not easy.

What kind of experience should a person have to get started?

I believe that any new make-up artist should have hands-on experience with 250 faces. You should have touched at least 175 or 150 faces to start out with. But if you are calling yourself a professional, you should have experience with at least 250 faces. Because you never know who is going to sit in your chair.

Is that why make-up for brides is more difficult?

Yes. With shoots, you know that certain things can be fixed in post-processing. But with bridal make-up, you know that people are going to see her in person. You want her to look glamorous, without seeming like she put fondant on her face.

You work out a color scheme based off what she's wearing. For a pooja, I wouldn't use a wine, but a softer pink. You want her to look fresh, because people will see her up close. The look needs to be appropriate for the occasion. For a sangeet or cocktail function she will probably be on a stage, so I use rich colors - pinks or reds - because they are glamorous events and you need to be a bit over the top to stand out.

But I never force my ideas on anyone. It's my duty to offer my suggestions as a professional with experience, but if a person is not comfortable with it then I'll do what they ask. Because everyone knows their own skin, and sometimes, they do know better.

What were your initial roadblocks?

I've had struggles with payments, not being given the right budget, doing so much collaboration work for credit. In the beginning, I was doing make-up for free just to build my portfolio. That's two years of my life, as well as investing in make-up, hair products, lashes and brushes, plus everything else. And each of these things is, again, expensive.

Of course, there are homegrown and sustainable brands that are a bit more affordable. But if I am charging a certain price, people expect me to use high-quality products. And there are many products with very specific ingredients or combinations that no other brand can provide me with. Certain clients will demand it, but more often, the look demands it.

Masaba Gupta. HMU by Simran Shah.

What's it like to be a freelancer?

As a freelancer, you don't have any backing. There's no agency or manager negotiating on your behalf. I've had clients who have come to me weeks later to say they didn't like the look, or it wasn't what they were expecting, or that I was slightly late. But that needs to have been discussed then and there, not weeks later when you are trying to get me to cut down the cost.

If someone is not ready to pay you or is trying to cheat you, you need to have done your due diligence. Have everything in black and white, have invoices, be very clear. Make sure you have any conversation related to money in writing. Either through Whatsapp or text, or if you'd met the client in person then follow that up with an email. I try to include as many details as possible in my discussions, to avoid issues like these.

Realistically, sometimes you just give in because you don't have a choice. That person may have a connection, or you want to work with them again for a specific reason. You need to keep your cool. But today with social media, especially if the client is well known, you can call them out for their behavior.

But it's not always like that. My world is one where I meet new people, I talk to people and often, the relationships become more than professional. I've become friends with many of the people I've worked with.

What would you say to someone interested in starting out?

People are often interested in buying and using make-up. And they are fabulous at doing make-up for themselves. But if I were to critique them as a professional, there's a lot of room for improvement. Understanding skin is so important. Understanding tone is essential, because no matter how beautiful the eyes and lips are, if they haven't done the skin work, it shows.

At the same time, there are some people I know of who haven't even learned or trained, but they are so, so good at what they do. It really depends.

What drives you to keep working at your craft?

I love the look on a client's face when they are really happy with what I've done. You can always tell. It's a good feeling. Despite all the negatives, like sometimes not being paid or credited, what really drives me is being appreciated. It's being recommended. The job requires a lot of hard work, money and energy, but it's worth it when you feel appreciated.

How do you approach your own make-up?

I’m a person who loves to experiment with my eyes but I don’t like to experiment with my lip color. I’m a professional makeup artist but I don’t use foundation at all, it doesn’t suit my face. Make-up is very subjective. It’s not right or wrong, good or bad. It’s art.

Images by Simran Shah.

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